Beyond spaghetti and meatballs

A food journey to northern Italy

Venetian pizza at Alla Nave Ristorante, Campolongo sul Brenta, Italy.

Venetian pizza at Alla Nave Ristorante, Campolongo sul Brenta, Italy.

Photo by Tuck Coop

In my ongoing attempts to keep you up to date on world culinary trends, the Chico News & Review recently sent me to northern Italy. Since the corporate jet was in the shop, I had to fly commercial coach, but it was worth the lack of legroom. I got the goods on il buono, il cattivo, e il brutto of Venetian cuisine.

First, everything you think you know about Italian food doesn’t apply to Italy north of Rome. I never saw spaghetti, or marinara sauce on pasta. The pasta is usually bigoli (a large, heavy noodle), and the pasta sauce is a brown gravy called ragù. I never saw a meatball. Pizza doesn’t come with pepperoni. And “peperoni” are peppers, not sausage slices.

Second, northern Italian food is simple—few ingredients, dead simple preparation. Americans used to a kitchen-sink approach, where every sandwich or pizza comes loaded with a dozen toppings and sauces, will find Italian food positively stark. Venetians consider a dish of pears a satisfying dessert, for instance. A plate of prosciutto and melon slices is a meal.

Sometimes this works brilliantly. Italian pizza is always a thin crust, a hint of tomato sauce, a sprinkling of cheese and perhaps one topping. It sounds boring, but after you eat it for a while the American version seems as vulgar as a Kardashian. I haven’t been able to look at an American pizza since my return.

Sometimes the results are merely OK. A salad is usually lettuce, with a little shredded carrot and beet. Or it’s Caprese—slices of tomato and mozzarella with basil and olive oil. There is no such thing as “salad dressing”—salads come with a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of vinegar.

Sometimes the results are terrible. An Italian sandwich (panino, “little bread”—panini is plural) is typically a dry, characterless, white-bread roll with salumi (salty, cured meat—prosciutto, speck, soppressa) and cheese—nothing else. Appalling.

In America, there’s a dependable hierarchy of food quality, with fast food at the bottom, then grocery store food, then chain restaurants, then gourmet food shops and foodie grocery stores, then high-end restaurants. Italians won’t eat food that isn’t high-quality, so all Italian food is excellent— artigianale (home-made) and tipico (local and proud of it)—from supermarket to the take-out pasta shops to the restaurants. We often ended up eating from the alimentari (grocery store) deli case, because their packaged ravioli and sauce were restaurant-quality.

The American stereotype of Italian food is vast piles of heavy pasta. But northern Italian food is very light. Italians are quite health-conscious and they don’t eat large amounts of fat or sugar. Nothing is buried under a heavy sauce. There is no such thing as creamy salad dressing. The pizzas are so light one is expected to eat an entire one alone, as only one of several dinner courses. The pasticcini (pastries) are a source of national pride, but they’re never the heavy, cloyingly sweet, heavily iced behemoths Americans crave—they’re tiny and light as air, with flaky dough that shatters when you bite in.

The flip side of this is, Italians eat a vast amount of food. Don’t be fooled by the menu, which implies you should order an appetizer, a salad, a primo piatto (first, or pasta course), a secondo piatto (usually a slab of meat), and a dolce (“sweet,” or dessert). My partner and I got in the habit of splitting just a primo, and it was plenty.

Next time: How much English do you need, and other concerns for visiting northern Italy.